Rafael Nadal keeps Darwin Blanch at arm’s length to set up Alex de Minaur rematch

Rafael Nadal keeps Darwin Blanch at arm’s length to set up Alex de Minaur rematch

By Oghale Apr25,2024

Rafael Nadal came to the Madrid Open, likely for a final time, wanting a chance to play in front of the Spanish faithful with his banged-up body no worse for wear. 

So far, mission accomplished thanks to an overmatched 16-year-old named Darwin Blanch. 

There are some in the know about pro tennis who have been tapping Blanch as a next big thing, or something like that. That time may come for the American, but it doesn’t figure to be anytime soon.

Blanch struggled to find the court over 13 games and 64 minutes of messy tennis, spraying balls long and wide and into the net and never able to find any rhythm against the aging champion. There is talent inside his lanky 6ft 3in (190cm) frame, but whether it was nerves or the usual heaviness of Nadal’s topspin, Blanch couldn’t muster what he needed to show for it. In truth, the match was probably over the moment he posted, “Guys I play Nadal wtf” on his Snapchat — three days before it started.

For Blanch, it was the second time in five weeks that he failed to make hay with a wild card entry into a tournament owned by IMG, the sports and media conglomerate that represents him, which is not uncommon in the sport. At the Miami Open, Blanch lost to Czech Tomas Machac, 6-4, 6-2, and now has to contend with whatever scar tissue remains from the drubbing by Nadal.

Blanch struggled to contend with enormity of his opponent’s legacy (Oscar del Pozo/AFP via Getty Images) 

Last year, the Madrid Open granted a wild card entry to Mirra Andreeva, who was 15 at the time and another of IMG’s clients. Andreeva knocked off a series of established players, including Leylah Fernandez, Magda Linette and Beatriz Haddad Maia to make the round of 16 in her tour debut. 

In an interview last month, Blanch’s father, Ernesto, said it was a waste of time for his son to play juniors anymore, that there was nothing left to learn from the under-18 tournaments since he had already made the semifinals of the junior French Open and Wimbledon last year as a 15-year-old. Darwin clearly has a huge amount of talent but it is nebulous, not yet hardened into a star like that of Nadal.

For Nadal, it was clear from the first games that he was going to be able to get through this match at half-speed. A master at figuring out how much he has to give to prevail on any given day, Nadal rarely exerted himself, and never pushed hard on his serve, the most troublesome shot for him at the moment because of soreness in the middle of his body. A nifty forehand down the line and a smooth overhead across the court to the corner elicited one fist pump out of him, but for most of the match, he kept the ball far from the lines and let Blanch do the rest of his work for him.

Nadal eased to a bagel in the deciding set (Oscar del Pozo/AFP via Getty Images)

His reward is his second duel in 10 days with Alex de Minaur of Australia. De Minaur took him out in straight sets last week in Barcelona but, as Nadal said Wednesday, these tournaments are not about stringing together wins, but merely keeping himself fit enough so that if his body starts to feel better, he will be sharp enough to compete at the French Open, which he has won a record 14 times.

Even taking the court in Paris is to be determined at the moment, he said on Wednesday. He won’t play if he can’t compete at his level. But for one more day on a red clay court in Spain, Nadal hit forehands and backhands in front of an adoring crowd, gave it all back, and walked off a winner. 

At this point, that’s about as good as it gets.

(Top photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP via Getty Images)

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